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A theme is a literary device used by an author to help the readers understand the central focus of a literary work. Some authors use themes to help the readers see the deeper meaning behind the story. While others use themes in order to help the reader understand and connect all of the parts of a story. In Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller many themes are shown to the reader throughout the play to help develop the characters and help the readers understand them. Three major themes in this play are the American dream, false importance on popularity and images, and theft.
The first major theme in Death of a Salesman is the American dream. Willy Loman is the protagonist, his main goal in life is to achieve his version of the American dream. For Willy achieving the American dream is solely based on how successful and well-liked a person is. According to Willy success comes with being well-liked and he will be able to achieve whatever he wants in life simply because people like him. He does not think he needs to work hard or be dedicated in order to succeed in business or in life. In fact Willy tells his sons, “Be liked and you will never want” (Miller 21).
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This shows the reader how much Willy cares about being liked so that he will never have to work hard for anything. For example when Willy’s sons are growing up they have a friend named Bernard, Willy believes that Bernard will not grow up to be successful because he is unattractive and awkward as a boy. However Willy does believe that because his sons are so popular as kids that they will grow up and become very successful. But in reality Bernard grows up to become a very successful lawyer while Willy’s sons, Biff and Happy, grow up having not done anything significant with their lives.
Because of the strong emphasis Willy puts on success being handed to a person based on their looks, Biff and Happy do not understand the meaning of hard work or what it takes to become successful on one’s own. Willy also struggles with grasping the reality that he needs to work hard not just scrape by based on his looks. Because of this Willy never fully achieves his American dream and ends up living in the past in a time where he was well-liked by his community and in his eyes a successful salesman. This theme shows the readers how much emphasis Willy puts on success but also how he does not work to achieve it.
The second major theme in Death of a Salesman is false importance on popularity and images. In the play the Loman family has a mindset that they are better than everyone else. They all believe appearances are the most important thing in life. For example Willy builds an idol like persona around Biff and Happy. Both sons believe that they are the best in everything they do and that everyone else is beneath them. Biff played football in high school and still, as an adult, walks around like he is the star football player that everyone wants to be around.
Willy also has the mindset that he is the best salesman in town, when in reality he is not a very good salesman and he has to travel all the way to Boston just to find work. Willy believes that if he is successful that he must be well liked in his community and everyone must love him. But because he has spent his life degrading and looking down on the other people in his town when he dies only his family attends his funeral.
His family did not understand why nobody came because they also believed that he was well-liked because he had fed them the lie that everyone in the community loved him. After the funeral Linda said, “But where are all the people he knew?” (Miller 110). This theme helps the readers understand why Willy is constantly degrading other people in order to make himself look better to himself and his family.
The third major theme is theft. Willy never teaches his sons that some things in life you cannot get away with because of your name or your looks, also he never makes them understand that actions have consequences. Because of this they assume they can do whatever they want. For example in high school Biff steals footballs from the school and gets through school by cheating and stealing answers from other kids. Rather than getting mad at him for cheating and stealing Willy gets mad at Biff for not cheating in math and in result failing it.
Also when Willy decides to rebuild his front porch he tells his sons to go and steal the lumber because he does not want to waste the money buying it. Because of this mindset instilled into his brain that stealing is okay when Biff moves off he steals a suit and ends up having to spend the next three months in jail. He also steals a pen from Bill Oliver’s office because Bill would not give him what he wanted.
Later when Willy and Biff are in a fight Biff tells Willy, “I stole myself out of every good job since high school….And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air…” (Miller 105). Because of Willy’s failure to teach his kids right from wrong they live their lives thinking stealing is okay and that their actions will not have consequences. This theme helps the readers understand Biff and Happy’s background and the absence of fatherly discipline in their lives.
The American dream, false importance on images and popularity, and theft are all major themes that can be seen throughout this play. Willy attempts to achieve his version of the American dream but falls short due to not having the right tactics about how to become successful. The entire Loman family, but specifically Willy and Biff, have the mindset that being well-liked and attractive makes some people better than others and that appearances are everything.
Willy’s inability to teach his kids right from wrong leads to Biff growing up to become a man who steals when he does not get his way or simply because he wants something but does not want to pay for it. The themes in this play help the readers fully understand the characters, their backgrounds, and why they act the way that they do.
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